Minutes after the Golden State Warriors secured back-to-back titles and their third ring in four seasons, Steve Kerr made his way through the crush of players, coaches, reporters and VIPs who flooded the floor at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
Kerr went from player to player, offering words of congratulations, and, in at least one case, encouragement. Kerr found Damian Jones, and slung his arm over the shoulders of the seldom-used second-year big man. He praised Jones for his work in Santa Cruz with the club’s G-League affiliate, then offered the following: “Next year is your year.”
This year, the Warriors needed six centers during their championship run. The roster, a championship roster at that, was flawed. It leaned too heavily to the side of big men, and was too light on wings. Amid the playoffs, just like during the regular season, the center rotation was forever in flux. The team’s architects — Kerr and president of basketball operations Bob Myers — took a lot of grief for that fact.
Myers made light of the fact at the team’s postseason availability on Monday, saying the team used each of its 12 centers. Of the actual six centers on the roster, none played less than Jones, the No. 30 pick in the 2016 NBA draft. He logged 11 minutes. Kevon Looney played 387, David West 175, Jordan Bell 173 and Zaza Pachulia 26.
Speaking at the team’s exit interview on Monday, both Kerr and Myers suggested the roster will be better balanced in the season to come. Most notably, the Warriors will get younger. There will be more minutes for the likes of Jones and Bell, but less of an obvious role on the roster for the likes of Pachulia, West and JaVale McGee.
“I think the safe thing to say is that we’re not going to have the same look next year in terms of having five or six vets,” Kerr said. “We’re going to have more youth, more energy to try to help us through the regular season. But it’s impossible to predict exactly what the roster will look like right now.”
Pachulia looks the least likely to return. The Georgian veteran vanished from the rotation late in the regular season, morphing into unofficial assistant coach. Next season would be year No. 16 for West. He turns 38 at the end of August. There’s no guarantee he’ll be back with the Warriors, or as an NBA player at all.
“David’s going to take some time to decide whether he wants to continue playing or whether he’s going to retire and we have to see how our roster shapes up with free agency,” Kerr said.
The other two free-agent centers — McGee and Looney — also face uncertain futures.
McGee is the ultimate matchup big. He started in the opening round and in the Finals but played just three minutes against the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals — the most important and competitive series of the playoffs.
At the right price — he banked $2.1 million this year — McGee is a fit in the puzzle for next season. Money is the issue when it comes to Looney.
After declining the ex-UCLA Bruin’s fourth-year option in October, the Warriors can only pay him $2.3 million. If another team makes a more generous offer, Golden State is out of luck. Myers refused to say he looks back at the move as a mistake.
“You have to make the decisions that we make based on the information you have,” Myers. “The way I view his performance is, I’m thrilled. I’m actually thrilled. We love to be proven wrong. The fact that he started in the Western Conference Finals is fantastic, and he helped us win a championship.”
Looney, like the rest of the centers from the season that was, had his flaws. With his ability to switch onto guards like Chris Paul and James Harden, Looney started — and excelled — in the Western Conference Finals.
When the Warriors moved on to the Finals and the Cleveland Cavaliers, he tumbled out of the lineup. The challenges presented by LeBron James and Tristan Thompson did not favor Looney. He didn’t see the floor in Game 3 and played just three minutes in the clincher.
If the money works out, Looney and McGee look to be the most likely free agents to join Bell and Jones, the only two centers who are locks for the season to come. That leaves room for two more wings, especially with the futures of Patrick McCaw and Nick Young uncertain.
Bell, who played double-digit minutes in the final five games against the Rockets and all four against the Cavs, has positioned himself as the small-ball center of the future. The seven-foot Jones, who’s played 174 regular-season minutes in his Warrior career, has the potential to assume the old Pachulia role when Kerr and Co. opt for a more traditional center.
When Kerr was asked just what he meant with his comments to Jones in Cleveland, he explained that he was serious. The 2018-19 season promises to be a big one for the Jones.
“Damian has spent the last two years preparing for next year,” Kerr said. “That’s the way I look at it. We knew he was going to be in Santa Cruz most of this year. He needed to play. We’re not going to have a roster full of veteran players, like I said. We’re going to have a lot of young guys. So, I anticipate that we will start training camp with some great competition in camp, and Damian will be right in the mix in all that, and that’s what I was referring to. Next year is a huge opportunity for him.”
How Jones responds to that opportunity will also be huge for next year’s Warriors.